The Gathering for Life on Earth is British Columbia’s main Pagan festival and has been a successful gathering of community for over twenty years now. It’s where all the different local paths, groups, solitaries, elders, and newbies can come for a long weekend and celebrate our magical lives together. I’ve been to three previous Gatherings just as a merchant and an attendee enjoying all the rituals, workshops, and main events, but this year the chair of the board, who is also a dear friend, sweetly roped (*cough* voluntold) me into being events coordinator when the previous one had to back out due to her job. After months of board meetings, planning, organizing, and crossing our fingers we’d get enough registrations to pull it off – we did and the festival was finally upon us. Some of the events of the Gathering were so moving and powerful that I’m going to write of them as separate tales. This post is to give you an idea of the overall awesomeness of the festival.
Every year we choose a new theme for the festival and this year’s was “Between the Worlds”. I admit it sounds vague, but I think we managed to tie all the rituals, events, and the overall feel of it into a theme of sacred space, altered consciousness, and awareness of spirits and deities being all around us. The opening ritual was performed in traditional NROOGD fashion with beautiful robes, beautiful liturgy, and a beautiful altar. After invoking the God and Goddess with lush words, Persephone and Chthonic Dionysos bedecked in finery led us through the door between the worlds into the underworld with the men and women chanting their own verses in rounds as we spiral danced our way through black raven gates. Then the animals were invoked and we all donned masks of creatures great and small and we mimicked the animals’ movements dancing and twirling wildly around the circle in the fading light of dusk. The sacred space was left cast for the duration of the weekend around the whole site in the forest so that we were literally between the worlds for the whole event.
Well after sunset on the first night was the traditional skyclad ritual, but the mead had found me first and then the sacred fire surrounded by lovely people – faces known and new. We introduced ourselves and talked and teased. A few of the men started drumming and I joined them, borrowing a friend’s djembe. During a break I felt called to the lake and walked alone along the beach and then out to the end of the dock and dipped my feet into the cool, still waters perfectly reflecting the stars and greeted the spirit of the lake and the spirit of the night. I lay down and watched shooting stars and the dark shadows of bats flying above me until I heard the most haunting ethereal music coming across the water from the fire. It sounded like fairy music from ancient folk tales and ghost stories. I let it draw me back to the fire and found the Shaman playing his wooden flute in harmony with a violin played by a lovely druidess who had come all the way from Montana with Eric. I sat by the fire and closed my eyes and let the lush music feed my soul until it was time to be whisked off to the dream world.
The next morning was filled with a nature walk getting to know the genius loci of the forest, a drumming 101 workshop, and a discussion group on the NROOGD tradition of Wicca hosted by an elder who’d come all the way up from California. The sun shone down and many people gathering on the big deck of the main lodge soaking up the sun while listening to a group of musicians play fiddle, guitar, and bodhran. I set up the marketplace for the merchants and then helped the Shaman prepare for his hosting of the main ritual in the forest after lunch. The “Passage Through the Underworld” ritual to heal the ties between us, our ancestors, and the land was beautiful and moving. Eyes were wet with tears and hearts were touched. After, while another friend of mine taught a hypnotherapy workshop, some of us stayed circled around the fire in a huge cauldron to finish off the libation mead and smoke a good cigar in offering to the spirits. This resulted in us being more than a little toasted for the Plant Spirit Discussion group right after, but the mead-induced trance state seemed to work in the Shaman’s favour as he talked to us about ritual death, ego death, and the surrender of control that ritual entheogens can teach us. He scared a few people who thought it would be about dryads and fairies, but the majority of those there soaked it all up and offered their own experiences in return.
After dinner that evening was the Bardic Festival. We call it a no-talent bardic, but it is more often than not packed with talent or, at the very least, entertainment. We had two singers with guitars, Kerri with her violin and gorgeous voice, Fritz singing “White Folks Was Wild Once Too“, the drumming 101 students playing the African rhythms they’d learned on djembes, a story of Pandora’s box, Eric with a monologue from a play, and many other offerings. The sun set, the fire roared by the lake. The drum circle started. There were djembes, bodhrans, snare drums, and a big wood and hide barrel drum. I came with a drinking horn hoping to drum, but before I could, the women dancing around the fire got a hold of me and pulled me in. We danced and danced and the drums got faster and faster. Bits of clothing started to come off with the women creating a game, teasing that more drumming equals less clothing, slower drumming or breaks and the clothes come back on. The men tried so hard to keep up the drumming, but it’s tiring, sweaty work (and I’m sure easy to get distracted by half-naked women) and they broke a few times to which I shouted “a real man could keep it up!” and the drumming would start again. We finally stopped, exhausted and laughing, drinking deeply. We stayed up dancing, drumming, and talking around the fire and in the darkness under the stars until the horizon across the lake was getting far too light for my tastes and I slipped back to my cabin to sneak in what rest I could.
Sunday was a day of ritual and rain. In the morning two lovely local high priestesses hosted the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram along with the Middle Pillar Ritual after which I hosted my workshop on altered states after casting sacred space and putting everyone to work with ritual trance techniques (I’ll go into it further in another tale). After lunch were the men and women’s mystery rituals. The women performed a new moon healing ritual and the men worked with their ancestral lines. The annual general meeting for the festival was held before dinner and board members were elected – looks like I’m doing this again next year! Then we feasted and I hosted a couple hours of storytelling by the fire inside the main lodge with the rain falling on the roof – a young man brought down the house with laughter telling the creation story “Coyote and the Assholes“. Afterward, when the sun had set, those who had come to my workshop came to me and asked to try my flying ointments. I brought out two large jars made with mandrake – one with grapeseed oil and one with duck fat and more and more people let go of their fears and tried the ointments. The musicians started up on their fiddles, violins, and drums by the hearth and much perfect chaos ensued late into the night to the heavy beating of the rain and the loud croaking of frogs… but that is also another tale.
Monday was the final day of the festival. We all sat sleepily at breakfast talking as much as we could with our newly made friends. We all pitched in and helped clean up the site, putting away the long strings of lights that had lit the paths at night, the women putting away the silks of Aphrodite’s Temple. After a delicious lunch the NROOGD group held the closing ritual to continue the rite they’d started on Friday night and closed the circle. Back we travelled with Persephone and Dionysos through the raven gates, back we travelled between the worlds to the mundane realm, with many of us reluctant to go. The chthonic pair asked us what we had learned, how we had changed, what fears we’d overcome while in the otherworld. Almost everyone seemed to answer “letting go, surrender, losing control” as the workshops and rituals had all unintentionally focused on this theme; letting go of our dead, letting go of our egos and self-consciousness, letting go of fears and surrendering to altered states of being (and mandrake), letting go and trusting ourselves and each other… It was a beautiful thing to see such shared experiences and how we had all come together as one community.
After this heartfelt and playful ritual full of song, the women split off from the men and gathered all the roses from Aphrodite’s temple and made a procession down to the lake. We all stood at the very edge of the dock and released the petals from the roses one by one into the waters while chanting “strong like the ocean, gentle like rain, river wash my tears away, Aphrodite”. Some women made wishes and some offerings as the flowers floated away into the lake surrounded by mist-covered mountains. The men watched us from across the lake, standing at the sacred fire. And it was done. There were hugs and sniffles and smiles as everyone made the rounds to say goodbye and make their way home. It was hard to leave that lovely forest by the lake and the amazing energy we created this year.
I had such an amazing time I didn’t take a single photograph and all of the ones in the post are by the lovely Cindy from Witchy Rambles. Thank you to everyone who helped to make this event so special and thank you to all the lovely new people who came (especially you delicious Americans) and showed us through new eyes how blessed we are by our local community. Slàinte mhòr!